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Claire jogged through the shopping centre. The sign for the toilets taunted her in the distance. Since she’d had the baby, time had begun playing tricks on her. So many hours to fill, yet never a free minute to get to the loo. Molly’s pram was slowing her down. It was enormous, the latest thing in baby safety, but it was like manoeuvring a tank.



A note on the family toilet door proclaimed it ‘Out of order’. She kept going towards the ladies’, issuing a stream of apologies as she went. The door to the disabled toilet was no more welcoming. That too presented a sticker barring entry for some undefined fault. Claire tensed her stomach, knowing there was no way the pram would fit into a standard cubicle, equally certain that she didn’t have time to get Molly into the baby harness.

‘Excuse me, the pram won’t fit,’ she told an older lady who was washing her hands. ‘Couldyou watch my baby a moment?’

‘Of course,’ the woman smiled sweetly into the pram. ‘We’ll be fine, won’t we?’ she cooed at Molly. ‘Thank you,’ Claire said, already inside the cubicle, fiddling with an uncooperative bolt. New voices echoed within the tiled enclosure, girls talking a million miles an hour about lipstick. Claire gave silent thanks for having averted one more crisis in a normal day of parenting a three month old, then made her way back out of the cubicle. She peered through the preening girls, reaching for the taps, looking left and right to check on Molly. Standing still, soap dripping off her hands, she double-checked the view. The pram had been just a few doors down. She stepped back, treading on a girl’s toes, saying sorry as the girl responded with a word she hoped Molly wouldn't know at such a young age. ‘Molly?’ she called, feeling stupid instantly. Her daughter was hardly going to recognise her name, let alone answer. ‘Have you seen an old woman with a pram?’ she asked the girls. ‘She was right here two minutes ago.’

The girls stared as if she was mad, shaking their heads and clearing out in a gaggle. There were tears on her cheeks as she caught her face in the mirror. Clutching her stomach, her heart no quieter than a stampede, she saw a yellow note stuck on the counter just below the wash basin where she’d been standing.

‘Your baby is at lost property,’ the paper said. Claire grabbed it, thinking it couldn’t possibly be for her, knowing it couldn’t be for anyone else. Why had she left Molly with a stranger? Surely her own needs could never have outweighed her daughter’s safety. How was she going to explain it to her husband, and why wasn’t she already moving? She grabbed her handbag, breaking into a sprint, fighting the growing nausea inside and grateful beyond belief that she already knew where lost property was located. One floor down on the escalator and Claire was there, glancing over shoulders and heads to catch a glimpse of the pram. ‘Excuse me…’ Claire said. ‘I’m just helping someone else, madam, could you wait please?’ a suited, heavily made-up woman responded without looking at her. ‘I was told my baby was in lost property. Have you seen a baby? A little girl? Three months old.’ The lost property official glared at her as if she was insane. Claire lowered her eyes, aware that she wasn’t getting enough oxygen and that she didn’t have the luxury of sitting down. The note was hanging precariously from the bottom edge of the lost property sign. For a second, Claire wondered if she was hallucinating. Reaching out a shaking hand, she touched the yellow square, the printing upon it blurring as she tried to read. It took three attempts before the words made sense. ‘A baby is not “property”. Go to security.’ ‘Where’s security?’ Claire blurted. ‘I’m sorry, I have asked you to…’ ‘My baby’s missing,’ she yelled, banging a hand on the desk. ‘Just tell me where the security office is and I’ll go away!’ ‘Two floors up, next to the cafe,’ the woman said. ‘And there is a policy about abusive behaviour towards employees, you know.’ She was already gone, dashing for the lifts, mobile in hand, wondering if she should phone her husband straight away. Right now, he was on a train to London. Short of terrifying him, there was absolutely nothing he could do to help. She was alone. By the time she’d exited the lift and scrambled to security, her eye-makeup had formed tree root patterns down her cheeks and the only sounds she could make were sobs. ‘My baby,’ she ranted. ‘Baby’s gone. Molly. From the toilets downstairs. Please help.’ ‘All right, try to calm down a bit love. We handle twenty lost children a day. Haven’t lost one yet for more than half an hour. Give me a description.’ The security officer opened a notebook with infuriating slowness. ‘Molly’s only three months old. She didn’t go anywhere. Someone took her,’ Claire shrieked. ‘Someone walked off with your baby? Which shop were you in at the time?’ he asked. ‘I was in the ladies toilets. I asked this woman to look after her and she seemed nice, so I went into the cubicle and now she’s gone. Can’t you, I don’t know, lock down all the exits or something? You can’t let her leave!’ ‘Well, that’s an unusual scenario, that is. Can you describe the woman you left your baby with?’ Claire tried to recall the details. Her mind was blank. ‘She was older, maybe, I’m not sure, over sixty. Wearing a coat, I think. And a hat. Not sure what colours. I can’t really…’ ‘The baby, then. Can you give me a good description of the baby?’ ‘Um, grey pram, her name’s Molly, some empty shopping bags in the net underneath.’ ‘That’s not hugely helpful if you don’t mind my saying, Miss. We’ll need more than that or we’ll end up stopping every older lady and every pram in the building.’ ‘I didn’t pay attention, all right? I was desperate. I just need you to find her! Please, please do something. This is useless!’ Claire ran from the security office, dashing into shop after shop, racing towards prams, staring at tiny faces, the traitorous minutes both dragging and racing. A hand on her shoulder halted her progress. Molly closed her eyes with relief at the sight of the police uniforms. ‘Oh, thank you, it’s been fifteen minutes and I can’t see her anywhere. Have you found the woman?’ ‘We’re here to talk to you, ma’am,’ the officer said. ‘We’ve had reports that a baby has been abandoned in the ladies’ toilet. Can I ask you to confirm your name?’ ‘I didn’t abandon Molly, she was taken. I looked everywhere. There were these notes…’ Claire saw the folded arms, the unsympathetic looks, and she ran, dashing down escalators, racing through the crowds, holding her breath until she burst into the toilets. There Molly was, giggling happily at a police woman, still tucked cosily into her pram. Fine. Absolutely fine. Claire ripped open the belt clips, clutching Molly against her chest, burying her face in the baby’s hair. ‘You can’t just go off shopping and leave your baby, ma’am. It’s not safe,’ the WPC said. ‘There were notes,’ Claire said. ‘The other toilets were out of use, and this old lady stole her…’ She looked around. The disabled toilet door was open, obviously operational. Back up the corridor, the family toilet was noisy with a group inside. The WPC raised her eyebrows. ‘We won’t take your details on this occasion, but please be aware that we take these matters very seriously. It’s a good job we located you as quickly as we did, or we’d have had to call social services.’ An hour later, Claire collapsed onto her couch at home. Molly was unharmed, that was all that mattered. Perhaps she’d overreacted, perhaps the old lady had simply become confused. Molly wriggled on her lap. With still shaking hands, Claire undid the baby’s coat to remove her babygrow, gasping as the slip of yellow paper fell from Molly’s back. Picking it up with thumb and forefinger, Claire grimaced as if it were poison. ‘That was entertaining,’ the note said. ‘See you again?’


‘Holly, we discussed this. You agreed there’s nothing else left to try,’ Dr Falstaff announced. Holly recognised the tone of voice. He’d made up his mind.


‘Fine,’ she said. ‘But I’m only giving it one day. Immersion therapy might work for people who’re scared of crowds but this is different. It’s evil, in fact.’


‘Ducks, Holly. They’re ducks, not evil. You have to identify them as simple animals. That’s the key.’

‘Don’t lecture me, Dad,’ Holly moaned. ‘I hate feeling like one of your patients.’

‘I’m a psychiatrist and you have a phobia. I think it’s helpful for you to understand that I’m

equipped to get you through your anatidaephobia.’

‘That’s it. I’m going.’ Holly grabbed her fluorescent tabard and opened the car door. ‘I’d

rather be staring at the beady-eyed little monsters than listen to any more of your psycho babble. I can’t believe you’re putting me through this.’

‘You also needed a job, remember? I called in favours to get this for you. The first hour will

be the worst. After that, your brain will start to normalise. We can’t maintain high levels of fear for long periods.’

‘Maybe not, but I can hold a grudge for at least a decade,’ Holly muttered, slamming the car

door.


The hotel was enormous. Its marble tiled lobby boasted a world famous central feature. The

man made miniature lake, waterfall and all, was lit with twinkling lights and surrounded by fake greenery. Holly reported to the front desk where a man thrust a whistle and keys at her, pointing in the direction of the rear of the building.


‘Ducks are in the wooden house out the back. I was expecting you earlier. Just unlock their

door and blow the whistle three times. They’ll fall into line behind you. Make sure no one touches them or they’ll be marching straight back into their house. Stay out of shot while guests are taking photos. You’re to remain in the background at all times but make sure you can safeguard the ducks if there’s trouble. Off you go.’


What sort of trouble could there possibly be, Holly wondered, as she found her way to the

rear of the hotel. The briefing couldn’t have been more dramatic if she’d joined MI5 and been

posted to protect a foreign dignitary.


The duck house loomed in the distance, all boarded up, horror movie style. She froze in

front of it. Remembered to breathe. Took another step. It was their eyes she hated. The blackness of them, the fact that you couldn’t tell exactly where they were looking. Only she knew they were staring at here. And here she was, about to unleash her personal version of hell for supposedly therapeutic purposes. There was no specific history to her phobia. No incident when she was a toddler. Just a steady dawning with each passing year that the flappy-winged, sharp-beaked creatures every other child thought cute and hilarious made her want to run screaming, and hide.


‘They’re just ducks,’ she said aloud as she slid the key into the lock. ‘Not evil. Just feathery

sweetness.’ Her heart was pounding as she opened the door and stepped back. There was a moment when nothing happened, then the orange brown arc of a beak appeared, followed by a head and a feathery body. The lead duck stepped forward. Behind it, quacking at the sudden daylight and freedom, came three other fully grown ducks and seven smaller ones - not babies - but not yet fully matured into a Holly’s nightmare creature.


Her panic threatened to overwhelm her. There was a momentary stand off. Holly stared at

the lead duck who made a sound that resembled Halloween cackling. Closing her eyes and

gathering her inner strength, Holly blew the whistle three times then turned around, moving slowly but steadily towards the door to the hotel. The ducks waddled in her footsteps. Holly felt faint, sick and ready to sprint all at once. She heard the mad squawk and spun round before she’d considered what might be happening.


‘Duck!’ a man yelled behind her.


The feathered demon flapped straight towards her face. Holly stumbled away, tripping over

her own feet, and landing flat on her back. The duck came in to land. Holly’s chest offered a

delightfully soft option for its leathery, webbed feet.


‘No,’ she murmured, unable to raise the volume of her voice at all. ‘Please, get it off. Help

me,’ she sobbed. ‘Help.’ The duck took a step forward, eyes glittering in the sunlight, head dipping as it moved.

‘Off you scoot,’ the man who’d issued the warning said, pushing the duck gently sideways

and picking Holly up. She covered her face with her hands, reddening with embarrassment, still shaking with fear.

‘You going to be okay?’ the man asked.

She took a deep breath. ’I suspect I now hold the world record for the shortest time a job has

been kept, and my duck phobia has been reaffirmed in the worst possible way. Apart from that…’

‘Maybe not,’ he said, calling over another staff member to relieve Holly of her whistle. ‘I

reckon there’s a better way to deal with your phobia than this. You don’t even need to stop working at the hotel if you want a job. Come with me.’


He lead her back inside through a different door, as the ducks waddled happily away to their

indoor pool.


Holly’s parents met her for dinner. She sat them at a table overlooking the hotel grounds and

cheerfully announced that she’d dealt with her crippling fear.


‘So your duck keeper job is a success!’ her father beamed. ‘Darling, I’m so pleased.’

‘Not exactly,’ Holly said. ‘But I have got a new job. Wait here.’ She disappeared behind

swinging steel doors and returned carrying two steaming plates.

‘Duck à l’orange,’ she smiled. ‘And don’t worry. Chef promises they’re not the ones from

the lobby.’

Updated: May 10

‘Will daddy be okay?’ 5 year old Charlie asked.


‘He’ll have to stay in hospital for a couple of days, but he’ll be fine. How did this happen,

sweetheart?’ the nurse asked.


‘It started when the rabbit fell from the sky,’ Charlie explained.


‘From the sky?’ The nurse swabbed the bite mark on the man’s leg. ‘But it wasn’t a rabbit

that bit your daddy.’


‘Nope. It was just nature. Daddy explained the whole thing to me…’


-----


First day in Southern California. First day in the United States, in fact. It hadn’t been easy

relocating from the UK at his company’s request, but they’d managed. They hadn’t been able to visit the house before leasing it, but the website photos had been enough to get the children excited. Palm trees, a fire-pit, BBQ, even an outdoor TV, but the crowning glory had been the pool. They’d arrived at the property, deposited their suitcases inside and formed an appreciative semi-circle around one edge of the glinting blue beauty. Jet-lag forgotten, 11 hour flight slipping away, the need to find a supermarket and make beds not yet urgent. Then the rabbit had fallen.


No one was looking skywards at the time. What they saw was a shadow growing in size,

followed by the realisation that something was coming. When they tilted their heads up, they saw ahuge bird looming above the rabbit who was uselessly kicking its little legs, eyes wide as it hit the water.


‘Daddy?’ Charlie said. ‘Can you save it?’


‘It’ll contaminate the pool water,’ Mum responded, pulling Charlie away from the edge.


‘There’s no net,’ Dad said. ‘Maybe it’s in the garage. Ellie, go and look.’


‘Gross, I’m not going in the garage,’ 15 year old Ellie moaned.


‘The rabbit’s dying!’ Charlie screeched.


Justin, 12 and afraid of almost nothing, cannon-balled gleefully into the water.


‘Get out!’ his mother shouted. ‘Don’t you touch that animal.’


Justin grabbed the rabbit by the scruff of its neck and began backstroking to the edge.


‘He’s got it!’ Charlie jumped up and down as Justin deposited the sodden, shivering creature

at the pool’s edge. Dad stepped forward and prodded it with his boot.


‘It’s half drowned,’ he said. ‘The kindest thing is to put it out of its misery.’


‘What does that mean?’ Charlie asked.


‘It means we should go inside while daddy takes care of it,’ Mum said. ‘Come on. We’ll find

Justin a towel.’


‘Will you make it better? Can we keep it as a pet?’ Charlie ignored his mother and grabbed

his father’s hand.


‘He’s going to kill it,’ Ellie said.


Charlie stared at her.


‘No,’ he whispered. ‘Daddy, say you won’t. It’s still breathing. We haven’t even tried…’


‘It’s just a rabbit, Charlie. He won’t know anything about it, and it’s kinder to get this over

with quickly,’ dad said.


‘We could get a box and wrap him up and give him food and he can stay in my room…’

Charlie’s eyes filled with tears.


His dad squatted down.


‘Charlie, listen. We’re tired and we have a lot more to do. We can’t look after a rabbit now.


This is how life works. It’s not always easy to understand, but that’s nature for you. Animals

sometimes behave in ways we can’t control. There’s nothing to get upset about.’


Charlie pressed a small hand against his mouth. Dad walked to the edge of the garden and picked up a large rock.


‘Please don’t,’ Charlie tried one more time.


‘Like I said son, it’s nature. Ellie, give your brother a hug so he doesn’t see anything.’


Ellie huffed but moved closer to her little brother as Justin climbed out of the pool to get a

better look at the action. Dad raised the rock high above his head and steadied himself. The eagle flew in to grab the rabbit as dad brought his hand down. Its talons, outstretched to

grab the prey, met the rock instead. Furious, it lashed out, needle-sharp beak jabbing into fingers. Dropping the rock and pushing the eagle away with his free hand, dad wheeled around to protect his face. Mum reappeared from the house, clutching a towel.


‘What the…kids, get inside now!’ she yelled.


‘Stay back!’ dad shouted.


The crow that had been watching from the fence saw his chance and swept in, moving

skilfully between them to land on the rabbit. It flapped its wings hard but the rabbit was too heavy. The eagle screeched and dived in to protect its prize. Dad stepped away to let them fight it out and stumbled over the rock, tripping sideways into the palm tree at the edge of the pool. The leaf that fell from the palm tree was 5 metres long and heavier than it looked. It hit Justin in the face as Mum attempted an intercept. The nest of spiders that came with it broke on her head.


‘Oh my God, are those black widows?’ Ellie screamed.


Justin dived back into the pool. Dad rushed forward, hitting wildly at his wife’s hair, just as

the eagle won the fight with the crow and took to the air with the rabbit. Ellie flailed away from the flapping wings, arms circling, tipping dad into the long grass at the edge of the garden. The rattle snake who’d been sleeping peacefully, woke with barely a second to give his customary noisy warning, and struck hard, once, before slithering away.


Mum ran to fetch a neighbour as Ellie called an ambulance and Justin searched the house for a first aid kit. Charlie remained in the garden with his father, looking around in wonder at the extraordinary new world they’d entered.


‘It’s all right dad.’ He patted his father on the arm with a sweet smile. ‘It’s like you told me.

It’s just nature. Animals sometimes behave in ways we can’t control. There’s nothing to get upset about.’

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© 2020 Helen Fields  Books / HS Chandler

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